The shifting demographics that are at the epicenter of every conversation in public radio circles aren’t really a new story. The aging of the audience has been taking place for decades, but it was easy to ignore when its key demographics fell fairly neatly within the 25-54 year-old sweet spot. Today, public radio’s born on date is a major topic of concern.
While discussed in board room meetings, programming brainstorms, and ratings analysis reports, the issue of public radio’s demographic cliff came to light in a big way at September’s Public Radio Program Directors Convention in Pittsburgh. I was fortunate to share the stage with a couple of very wise men – Edison’s Larry Rosin and the RRC.’s (Radio Research Consortium) Dave Sullivan – and the central issue was all about adult ratings declines and the challenge of enticing Millennials to sample public radio program.
Since the PRPD event, these challenges have become more public. While other businesses and corporations are grappling with these same types of strategic concerns, public radio's challenges are now making headlines, from industry trade publications to major media players.
So public radio finds itself in the spotlight – or perhaps the crosshairs – because of the percentage of public radio listeners applying for Medicare. Over the weekend, The Washington Post ran a story (“NPR is graying, and public radio is worried about it”) that highlights the dilemma. (Ironically, a newspaper is covering this challenge, while that industry struggles even more with aging and eroding readership.)
The article details public radio’s travails in general – and NPR’s specifically – pointing out that while the audience is graying, there are multiple initiatives designed to slow down and even reverse the aging process.
The difference between public radio’s struggles and these same issues on the commercial radio side of the aisle relates to both demographics and the art and craft of strategic problem-solving. We’ve tracked the age scoreboard in our seven Public Radio Techsurveys, and there’s no doubt the audience continues to slide gradually older. But the public radio core is also more loyal – its Net Promoter Scores average 20 points higher – and considerably more educated. All of that factors into the calculus of “Now what?”
Both of those factors are key in public radio’s pursuit of an industry morph that can tap into changing media habits and information sources. But the challenge centers on the most difficult balancing act of all – fixing the plane while it’s cruising at 35,000 feet. It is a delicate task to take a media entity aimed at Boomers, and deftly shift its focus to a younger group of media consumers – without alienating the base. Marketers programmers, strategists, and managers understand the degree of difficulty associated with this daunting task. And in fact, this isn't a public radio problem – it is one shared with the entire industry.
Looking back on the past decade in public radio, it becomes clearer each year that the system has been out in front with many of its digital initiatives – including podcasts, dashboards, and mobile apps. Not all these efforts have been successful, of course, but public radio has attempted to stay ahead of the curve within a network/affiliate model that isn’t always conducive to experimentation and a rapid pace of change.
This recent rash of publicity about the graying audience may be a case of public radio taking one for the radio team. The fact is public radio and NPR have often shown all radio broadcasters how the transition can look, and how to connect with audiences in the digital arena. In many ways, public radio has been influential in leading the way with new media offerings and options.
The imperative for public radio is that it continues to go about this challenge in a strategically smart way. In looking at what key players in the system have already accomplished over the past decade – and what they’ll have to do moving forward – consider the following steps:
1. Measure it – There’s a great deal of available research data between the public radio networks, the stations, and companies like ours that illustrate some of the big differences between Millennials who appreciate public radio – and their parents and grandparents. Clearly, more research will need to be conducted to better understand the common threads of content and distribution, as well as different approaches that can appeal to either end of the age spectrum – without turning off either one.
2. Make it – In this context, public radio is well ahead of the game. Its strong track record for podcasting has helped establish its leadership position in this space. Last year’s Serial got all the headlines – and deservedly so. But public radio’s dominance in on-demand programming includes many of its legacy programs and personalities. Yet, this only scratches the surface and everyone in public radio will tell you that. Data from our PRTS7 study demonstrate the appeal of on-demand content among Gen Y, a possible gateway to attracting a younger audience.
There has been great progress in the mobile department, especially with the NPR One app which we honored earlier this year with a Radio’s Most Innovative award.
And many forget that NPR partnered with Sirius early on to provide programming channels to the fledgling satellite start-up, even though many in the system urged them not to cut that deal. It has provided yet another source of exposure for one of the world’s best media brands bolstering the philosophy of providing content wherever the audience desires it.
But the digital arena aside, public radio has to go to work on its core program schedule, both during weekdays and weekends. To survive in this environment, it will require redefining and rebooting existing shows, programs, and hosts as well as introducing new offerings to a burgeoning audience.
3. Market it – This is an area where public radio knows it needs to rethink some of its givens about audience awareness and connectivity. Stations have been rather slow to embrace social media and other touch points that define Millennials. A better understanding of how to use the digital tool kit will be essential to truly shifting public radio’s demographic emphasis.
4. Monetize it – Of course, this is the Holy Grail because the financial piece ultimately defines the parameters of what can – and cannot be done. On the one hand, public radio’s underwriting staffers (as their salespeople are called) are less dependent on the vagaries of Nielsen ratings. But on the other, creative ways to connect sponsors to content go to the heart of the financial challenge.
Earlier this year, a “podcast upfront” was held in New York City, a bold move to expose public radio content to major brands. This type of creativity will be necessary in public radio’s efforts to change its demographic stripes. Perhaps annoying and incessant pledge drives will one day be replaced by more Millennial friendly Kickstarter-type campaigns, creating a more organic and more ratings-friendly way of fundraising.
In an environment where change isn’t just in the air – it is the air – public radio finds itself faced with a profound challenge that may go beyond some of its past trials and tribulations.
Don't bet against them.